‘Here is no work; there is war’: Refugees in İzmir

In Europe, we think we have a refugee crisis.

According to Full Fact, 17,205 people were granted asylum in the UK in 2018. Over the same period, Germany granted asylum to 139,555 people.

Meanwhile, there are nearly 100,000 refugees living in Greece, including over 35,000 on the Greek islands, in conditions that have been described as a humanitarian disaster.

But let’s have a little perspective, shall we? In Turkey, there are over 3,600,000 Syrian refugees, living with the limited legal rights granted under ‘temporary protection’, in the shadow of a war zone.

So, while on Samos, I had to take a couple of days out to visit İzmir, one of the most important transit cities for refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece.

İzmir is positioned with easy access to the strip of coastline that faces Lesvos, Chios and Samos, three of the Greek island ‘hotspots’ where refugees can register for asylum in Europe.

Syrians have been coming to İzmir for decades: easily evidenced by the dozens of established cafes and restaurants doing quick business around Basmane railway station in the city centre.

After a hearty lunch of fuul and khubz in a canteen overflowing with Syrians – young and old, male and female, refugee and resident – I asked around for someone who spoke English and was directed to a young guy we’ll call Ahmed.

Ahmed told me that he’d only been in Turkey for 20 days – and had spent 15 of those in prison. He’d already tried to cross to Samos twice and both times he’d been picked up by the Turkish coastguard after helicopters spotted his boat.

According to Aegean Boat Report, the Turkish coastguard have stopped 2,699 boats like Ahmed’s from crossing to Europe this year. Only about a third of the refugees who leave Turkey on boats arrive in Greece.

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Ahmed tells me that he’s got a brother in Athens who crossed the Aegean to Greece before the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement that has made the coastguard so vigilant.

In the 2016 deal, the EU promised Turkey €6 billion in financial aid as well as visa-free travel through Europe for Turkish citizens. In return, Turkey would better patrol the European border and re-admit refugees who reached Greece illegally.

In reality, the Greek leftist Syriza government, in power until this summer, proved reluctant to send refugees back to conditions where their human rights would not be respected.

The new Greek conservative government has promised to make far greater use of the returns agreement, but it is yet to be seen whether such a course of action is feasible, let alone defensible.

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After being picked up by the coastguard, Ahmed and the others in his boat were taken to a detention centre. He told me that he was beaten up by the police and that the detainees shared living quarters the size of a basketball court with as many as 1,500 others.

Ahmed spent five days in detention before being deported back to the border with Syria. But he – and all the friends he made in the detention centre – came straight back to İzmir to try to cross again. ‘Here is no work; there is war,’ he says. ‘What can we do?’

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Ahmed isn’t even supposed to be in İzmir: he doesn’t have the right papers. He’s supposed to stay in the province bordering Syria where he first arrived in Turkey.

Throughout our conversation, Ahmed’s eyes were darting around, looking over my shoulder for the police who often sweep through Basmane checking people’s papers.

Earlier that day, I’d spoken to Onur, the head of an official refugee support NGO in the city. Over a glass of tea in his office, Onur politely apologised. He was sorry, but he couldn’t tell me much about the situation for refugees in Turkey without getting the approval of the Directorate General of Migration Management.

But Onur was able to tell me that there were around 180,000 Syrians in İzmir – significantly more than the official figure because of irregular migration between provinces by refugees like Ahmed.

Onur told me that refugees can change their papers when they move to a different province, but Ahmed explains that this is not the case for İzmir, Istanbul, Ankara or any of the other few places where you might be able to live – or escape to Greece.

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Here in İzmir, Ahmed shares a room in a hotel with his new friends. Despite splitting the single room between five people, one of their jobs today is to find somewhere cheaper.

The whole area around Basmane is a maze of cheap hotels, fast food joints, shoe sellers and cigarette pushers. The hotels are mostly full of Africans, who stay for one or two nights and then move on. Syrian refugees tend to stay in run-down houses, scarcely fit for human habitation, infested with mice and cockroaches – but at least they’re cheap.

Life here is hard. Ahmed has only one friend who can speak Turkish and he has to do all the translating for the group. Ahmed speaks great English, but that’s not much use here. He studied English in school for eight years, but since then he’s lived through seven years of war.

‘I’m 25,’ he tells me. ‘If I don’t go to Europe, I have no future anywhere.’

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Samos Update: There are now 400 more refugees on Samos than there were when I arrived – up to 6,492 according to Aegean Boat Report. That’s despite the transfer of more than 700 people to the mainland a couple of weeks ago.

One more thing…

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The Oldest Warzone

The two most shocking stories I heard while travelling came as a pair, one from each side of the Aegean border.

The first I heard from a Turkish volunteer in Izmir. This was her friend’s story and she prefaced the whole by saying that she was only repeating the otherwise unbelievable – and barbaric – tale because she trusts her friend absolutely.

The two friends volunteer for a small organisation in Izmir that tries to help refugees integrate into Turkish society. It started as a place where refugees and locals could come together to cook and eat a meal. Now they also distribute warm clothes during winter and help refugees navigate Turkish bureaucracy. Just last week, for example, the volunteers helped a Syrian boy enrol in a local schools, something that his parents couldn’t have done alone.

Recently, the friend accompanied a pregnant Syrian woman when she went to hospital to give birth. The birth was a success, but afterwards she was presented with a piece of paper to sign. The new mother couldn’t read the paper written in Turkish, of course, but she was pressured to sign anyway.

It was a medical consent form for the surgeons to strip her ovaries and render her infertile.

After repeating this story, and repeating her incredulity that it could possibly be true, my Turkish friend averred that the hospital’s reported behaviour was totally unethical. But she also said that it was understandable, from both a financial and moral stand point.

Turkey isn’t a rich country and childbirth costs a lot of money that the government cannot recoup from penniless refugees. But my friend also told me that many refugees in Izmir live on the streets, or in hotels and apartments that are barely inhabitable. There is little enough money to feed themselves, let alone extra mouths. It’s irresponsible to have kids in this situation, my friend cried. It is not right.

It was my time to repeat a story I’d heard a few days before in Samos. There might be other reasons that a refugee needs pregnancy and childbirth.

Two months pregnant and travelling alone, a Syrian woman arrived on Samos and was taken to the hospital for a check up. At the hospital, it was discovered that this woman had been raped during her journey to Europe. The doctor told her that, because of the rape, she was entitled to have an abortion.

The woman refused. Thanks to her pregnancy, she explained, she would be placed on the ‘vulnerable persons’ list and given priority for transfer away from Samos to the mainland. No one wants to stay for long in the filth of Samos. Pregnancy is the closest a human being here can get to a free ticket out of the camp.

These rules are made with the noblest of intentions, I’m sure, but their side effects are barbaric.

As a topper to this story, I was told a third by an Ethiopian woman in the Samos camp. She had a friend who had been transferred to Athens because she was pregnant. Tragically, after she arrived in Athens, she had a miscarriage. With no baby, the authorities tried to transfer her back to Samos.

I should say that these stories are uncorroborated, but they raised little more than an eyebrow when retold to local volunteers who have heard too many, too similar.

Women’s bodies are history’s oldest warzone: a millennia-old war fought between state and self over who has the right to new life – in all senses.

One more thing…

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